Player Feature: Harvard Football's Josue Ortiz

Josue Ortiz gets one of five Harvard sacks during a 42-3 win over Bucknell at Harvard Stadium on Oct. 15, 2011 (Gil Talbot) Buy Now
Josue Ortiz gets one of five Harvard sacks during a 42-3 win over Bucknell at Harvard Stadium on Oct. 15, 2011 (Gil Talbot)

by Carl Ehrlich '09-10

Three years ago, during an in-season lift, I started what was called the "400 pound bench press club." The members were (then captain) Matt Curtis, NFL Oakland Raider Desmond Bryant, Josue Ortiz and myself. Musing about how to "stay sharp," I jokingly suggested we wake up at 4:10 AM the next day and do 41 push-ups.

The next morning, I checked my Facebook inbox.

New Message From: Josue Ortiz        Time: 4:11 AM        Message: Just crushed it

At our next lift, "The Club" and I had a laugh about Josue's dedication. Josue's face looked surprisingly serious.

A month later, he was still doing the pre-dawn push-ups.

Its stories like these, stories everyone on the team has, that make Josue Ortiz one of a kind. He's a weight-lifting, God-fearing, chicken-breast devouring, textbook studying, quarterback crushing Puerto Rican American who makes abstract algebra seem easy to understand.

The only thing harder than fitting the 6'4'' 260 pound defensive tackle's neck in a dress shirt is fitting his personality into 1100 words. 

"No one on our team has improved more since arriving on campus as a freshman than Josue," says Tim Murphy, the Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football. "By virtue of an incredible work ethic and self discipline, Josue has developed into one of the top players in the Ivy League and a legitimate candidate for Ivy League Defensive Player of the year."

David Sklar '11, one of Josue's former roommates, jumped at the opportunity to speak on "'sue-bot" (sway-bot)'s behalf. It was a difficult topic, Sklar explained, but he had become a master in "'sue-ology."

"Josue's life is all about routine," Sklar explained, speaking more like a department chair than roommate. "Understanding his routine helps explain how he's become the monster he is."

It's a monster who led the Ivy League in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (13.5) last season. A monster who earned pre-season all-American honors and ranks as the sixth-best DT in the nation. A monster who I once watched eat 25 cafeteria meatballs in two minutes.

"To me, Josue's funniest and most telling routine is his food consumption," Former teammate Peter Ajayi '10 explains. "He's always had shocking amounts of food in his locker. One day it was a 12 pack of jelly-rolls. Another day it was a Tupperware of chicken breasts. The type of food changed day-to-day, but it was always there, and there was always a lot of it."

Massive volumes of food help explain how Ortiz went from being an undersized defensive lineman as a freshman to a 475-pound bench-pressing senior that makes NFL scouts drool. He admits his first years at Harvard were "nutritionally misguided" (Ortiz admits to the blind pursuit of calories— mainly double gulps of soda and sugar cookies), and has since discovered the value of a balanced diet. While he still consumes five to six thousand calories a day, most of his diet is composed of brown rice, vegetables, fruit and chicken breasts.

Fifteen chicken breasts, to be exact.

Josue's dedication to protein consumption is unrivaled. He admits to drinking 32 ounces of water before bed so his body will wake itself up for a mid-night protein shake. And the proof is in the pudding – Josue's bodily transformation looked like something directed by Steven Spielberg.

Ortiz' weight gain came as part of a radical transformation he underwent following his sophomore season. After spending his freshman year sidelined by injury and his sophomore season playing behind the rest of "The Club," Josue took a long, hard look at himself. He wasn't the player he thought he could be and set out to change things that offseason.

Part of Ortiz' transformation meant cleaning up his diet, but former defensive lineman Ryan Burkhead '10-11 remembers a routine much more telling to Josue's success.

"I have never seen anyone as dedicated to weight training as Josue," Burkhead remembers. "Anyone can set out to eat as much as Josue does, but very few people are willing to put in the work. His focus and intensity in the weight room are unrivaled."

And this wasn't just one offseason of hard work. To this day, Ortiz – famous for talking to himself during lifts – works out four times a week (twice with the team, twice on his own). Rarely do you see that type of hunger from someone coming off a unanimous first-team All-Ivy performance. For a top-tier, fifth-year, in-season athlete to voluntarily lift two more times than the rest of his team is unheard of.

With Ortiz' training habits, one comes to expect the unexpected. Given his dedication, it's hardly surprising to discover he worked out in the hotel weight room the day before the Lafayette Game.

Both of these routines—the attention he gives his diet, the focus he gives to his training— are impressive, but they only tell half the story of Ortiz' transformation. Coming out of his sophomore season, Ortiz wasn't the football player he though he could be, but he also wasn't the person he thought himself capable of.

"There was something missing in my life," Ortiz remembers. "As a kid, I kind of went to church with my parents, but I never practiced on a personal or private level until my sophomore year. That's when I really chose to give my life to God."

Ortiz found comfort and purpose in religion, and it quickly became the routine upon which all other routines were built. Much like his approach to everything else in his life, his religious routine is marked by complete and total dedication. Sunday worship. Wednesday mid-week service. Thursday bible talk. Friday devotional.

God, Josue tells me at most every opportunity, has done incredible things in his life.

"After I was baptized, my life changed," Josue told me. "In school, I've worked hard to become a better student. In my personal life, I've opened up.  I'm more sociable, easier to get along with. I've become much more loving, more joyful."

If one is taken aback by all the different faces, and routines, of Josue Ortiz, they aren't alone. Rarely in our lives do we encounter someone with such eccentricity who is simultaneously so grounded in his ways. Rarely do we find someone who can take such an honest stock of themselves—as Josue did after that sophomore season—and then have the courage to act upon the changes they see necessary.

Many of us may look upon Josue Ortiz and wonder how he's managed to juggle the extremes of all of these realms. How he's managed to commit himself so tirelessly to training, and yet find the energy to pursue his academic interests. How someone with such a laser-like focus on his body can then think beyond himself and also become one of the most spiritually active people on campus.

These different worlds, and the dedication Ortiz shows to each of them, seem foreign to us.  We wonder how they can all co-exist. But for Josue Ortiz, they all come naturally.

They're all part of the routine.